When you think of sustainability, what actions come quickly to mind?
The definition of sustainability has expanded significantly in recent years, so that its well-worn associations—waste management and conservation, most prominently—are now complemented by a host of additional subjects. Equity, environmental justice, carbon neutrality, climate change, resilience, even straws: the list is long and complex.
But for many, recycling remains a primary association, and for good reason: a majority of people, in the wealthier nations at least, can participate in it, with direct effect. Put simply, less waste ends up in landfills, in our oceans, and in our bodies, when we recycle. We also procure and use fewer raw products, which reduces our collective environmental impact on a number of fronts.
UW-Madison has a robust, multi-stream recycling system, with a dedicated crew from Facilities Planning & Management that manages pick-up and transport to our landfill and recycling partners. Still, certain challenges remain, because not all campus buildings operate in the same ways, and many campus consumers remain confused about how, precisely, to recycle correctly.
These two issues come together with particular clarity at a venerable campus location: College Library. Situated on the shore of Lake Mendota, College Library participates in UW-Madison’s multi-stream recycling system, but also has some distinctive features. It is one of the few campus facilities that is open 24/7 during parts of the year—namely, finals—and nearly that often during the rest. To support their preferred study environment, students are permitted to bring food into the building, as well as order delivery from local restaurants. Now consider that the hard-working custodial crew does not perform pick-ups over the weekend, and that many of the students at College Library are sleep-deprived and stressed, meaning that they are less likely to pause next to a recycling bin to consider their disposal choices. In all, you have a recipe for waste stream issues.
On the plus side, you also have a recipe for collaboration.
Students lead the way
Department of Life Sciences Communication professor Bret Shaw has been a proponent of sustainability for many years. For the Spring 2018 iteration of LSC 515, the department’s senior capstone class, Prof. Shaw made College Library his students’ research site, inviting them to do qualitative and quantitative social science research about waste practices in order to develop recommendations for a new waste stream strategy. Among other things, his students found that a majority of College Library visitors cared about recycling, and moreover believed that they knew what items belonged in which bins—but that they were often mistaken.
So Shaw invited Carrie Kruse, director of College Library, along with members of the Office of Sustainability (OS), to his students’ final presentations. The visitors not only participated in the Q&A period, but also convened after the presentations to help Shaw determine the project that they found most promising. Ultimately, all projects had strong points, but one in particular—by students Rafael Gaglianone, Char’lee King, Mariah Martin, and Emma Wagner—took top honors. It’s tagline (and hashtag): “Recycle Right.”
As a branding strategy, Recycle Right addresses a common misunderstanding among consumers: that it’s better to recycle something, even if it might be trash, rather than sending it to the landfill.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Even with sophisticated sorting equipment, too much contamination of the recycling stream can cause entire loads to be sent to the landfill. Moreover, the recycling market is changing drastically—and the changes, in part, hinge on contamination of recycling loads from the United States. Rather than “aspirational recycling,” therefore, it is better to encourage consumers to heed the following mantra: “when in doubt, throw it out.”
This is where Recycle Right comes in: by helping consumers understand how to recycle properly in the first place.
From ideas to action
Over the summer and fall of 2018, Carrie Kruse and Professor Shaw collaborated with Brooke Weiland—a graduate student in Life Sciences Communication who is also a professional designer and illustrator—and Pamela O’Donnell, Communications Librarian at College Library, as well as students and staff from the Office of Sustainability, to adapt the Recycle Right idea. To provide further support for the campaign, OS student interns coordinated with custodial staff to complete two trash audits, in order to ascertain a baseline for waste stream contamination. Meanwhile, during College Library’s #StudyStrong event, early versions of the signs were displayed as a pilot with a live audience. And the entire team went over draft after draft of the campaign materials, with Weiland making subtle tweaks to the designs until they were ready.
“Because College Library is the library with a primary focus on students, we are always interested in collaborating with student-led projects,” explained Kruse. “Also, the library has worked for several years with the Office of Sustainability to improve our staff practices, participating in the Green Office program. The Recycle Right campaign was a perfect opportunity to bring our sustainability commitment to the public spaces in the library, based on information from Professor Shaw’s course research project. This is collaboration at its best.”
The result of this collaboration is now on display at College Library: in addition to new signs throughout the building, table tents help patrons with commonly confusing items, like plastic silverware (landfill), straws (also landfill), and coffee cups (partly recycling, partly landfill).
Both the bin signs and the table tents seek to balance clear messaging, consistent color schemes, and appealing design, so that patrons are able to understand quickly what items go where. Just as importantly, the bin signs discourage aspirational recycling by indicating what does not belong. The table tents explain why contamination is an issue in the recycling process, so that patrons feel that their actions will make a real difference.
“One of the things we were aiming for with the bin signage was making it as easy as possible to correctly sort waste, and the table tents provide an opportunity for students to learn more about how to ‘recycle right,’” said Prof. Shaw. “There are just a handful of items that people are consistently confused about, and we hope this campaign will help people correct these misunderstandings. Brooke Weiland did a great job at collaborating with the team to create designs that can help improve the way students recycle at College Library.”
The proof is in the pudding (container)
During the spring semester, the team will conduct further trash audits to check on progress. Will behaviors change? Will patrons of College Library follow the guidelines of #RecycleRight (or, as Helen C. White might admonish, “recycle properly”), or will the signs begin to lose their efficacy? With the constantly changing populace at the university, behavioral change is a moving target.
But given the thoroughly successful collaboration that launched this campaign, and the commitment to sustainability that’s growing by the day at UW-Madison, Badgers should have high hopes.
To read College Library’s post about Recycle Right, click here.
To listen to an audio interview with Carrie Kruse, Prof. Bret Shaw, and Nathan Jandl about the Recycle Right Campaign, click here.
By: Nathan Jandl